I’ve enjoyed many many wonderful meals, at amazing locations around the world, so narrowing down to the best meal I’ve ever eaten is tough. My husband will tell you that I can probably recount everything that we ate at many of these meals – dish by dish in great detail. But there is one meal that really sticks in my mind as the best meal I’ve ever eaten, and while the food was excellent, it doesn’t necessarily stand out because of the food. While most people wouldn’t typically associate the Dutch with gourmet cuisine, that is where this story begins.
While I was living in The Netherlands, I began to discover the importance of factors other than food to a meal’s overall appeal. In fact, so much so, that the Dutch even have a word for this – gezellig – literally translated it means cozy, but the actual meaning is so much more that there isn’t really an English word that directly translates. It describes the kind of evening you have now and again where you get together with wonderful friends, the conversation is flowing and everyone really connects; perhaps you imbibe in a tipple or two, you enjoy delicious food – lingering over the meal and maybe even some extra dessert, friends stay until late in the evening over coffee or even a night cap. Those get-togethers that just warm you from the inside, that you wish wouldn’t end. They’re relaxing, invigorating, fun and upbeat – and there’s a sense of togetherness. Sometimes its very simple fare, and others it may be an elaborate event – but it’s a vibe or an atmosphere that really makes the night special. That is gezellig.
While I was living in The Netherlands I started work in my first job out of university, in a small rural town in the north. There were a lot of young people in a similar situation and everyone was a transplant – having moved there from somewhere else. In that time, there was a standing Thursday night dinner that the group of young professionals would meet up for. Each week a notice of the restaurant of location would go out – and anyone who chose, would meet up there at the appointed time. People of many different nationalities would come together to share dinner – each week a different cuisine. Afterwards many people would continue on to a local bar – and my understanding of Dutch would diminish significantly as the evening wore on – I blame the noisy bar and nothing to do with the late nights, alcohol and detailed discussions of local pop culture that was pretty foreign to me. Those nights were memorable nights to bond with others transplanted in a similar situation – all people new to this northern rural town and new to life as a working professional in a large multinational company. It was my first experience of ‘togetherness’ and of that feeling of gezellig.
Another thing that the Dutch do very well is festivals. In that small northern rural town, there were many festivals hosted throughout the year in the central park, central square and around the city. I can remember festivals celebrating summer, performing arts, jazz, and the new year – just to name a few. What stands out the most about these multitude of events was the atmosphere of people around the city enjoying good food, beer and various entertainment alternatives. People would sit together and celebrate the seasons, the arts or whatever the festival may be centered around – the vibe was infectious.
So its no surprise that the meal that sticks in my memory as the best meal I ever ate was a wonderful evening in Amsterdam, and it was definitely about more than the food. It was a summer evening, and we were visiting friends in Amsterdam. After catching the train several hours from the north, we were greeted by friends and taken back to their house on their boat via the canals of Amsterdam. We escaped the busy streets and puttered through the quaint waters of the Amsterdam canals, enjoying the late summer sunlight and the scenery of the small row houses as we journeyed under bridges and alongside historic streets. Once we’d settled in, our friends took us out to a nearby restaurant called Balthazar’s Keuken. Bathazar’s Keuken is run by a chef team who tired of working in large busy restaurants, and longed to create the kind of food that they enjoyed cooking. The pair set up a restaurant that feels like you’re having dinner in their house. In fact, the restaurant is in the ground floor Dutch row house in the heart of the historic Jordaan area of Amsterdam, and in the summer the tables spill out onto the pavement by the canal. They only open for dinner four nights per week, and the meals have two sittings – 6pm or 9pm and there is no menu – the chefs serve a unique menu each week based around what is in season. The meal starts with several ‘hors d’oerves’ served at the table to share, is then followed by your choice of a meat or fish based main course and then finished off with dessert. The choice of drinks are red or white wine served at each long communal table in carafes. This was my memory of ‘seasonal’ dining – and I enjoyed the freedom that the lack of menu offered – both to the chefs – who could be creative with what was available and in season that week, but also to the diners – who didn’t have the ‘pressure’ of having to choose off the menu. It was a wonderful evening that has stayed in my memory – incredible food with creative and fresh flavours, long summer evenings by the Amsterdam canal, and wonderful friends to linger over dinner with – gezellig for sure.
Several more meals have stuck in memory from the time I spent in The Netherlands – and they all became special memories for more than the food. The first was a trip to Belgium that my husband and I took during a long weekend. After much heated discussion about the directions on that autobahn (before the days of navigation systems) – we arrived at a B&B in the countryside of the French speaking part of Belgium. We sat in the garden of the B&B to enjoy dinner and not speaking French, could not understand the menu at all! To overcome this, we knew enough to understand the ‘prix fixe’ menu – so chose this option, to escape having to make any further choices. Out came course after course of delectable French food. We lingered over this incredible meal out in the garden enjoying the late summer evening – and so began my love affair with French cuisine.
The other memorable dinners were all significant because they were shared with special friends – homemade stamppot (traditional Dutch winter comfort food of mashed potatoes mixed with various greens and meat – we enjoyed bacon and kale), made for us by a Dutch friend whom we had met whilst he was been studying in Australia. Homemade lasagna in the slanty top floor of a canal side row house made by an Australian friend who also happened to be working in the same small Dutch rural city. And finally Christmas – our first Christmas dinner in our house – away from family we had a houseful of friends from Australia descend upon us for the Christmas break. It was a huge celebration – the kitchen was tiny and ill-equipped, and dishes took longer to cook than I expected – but it was a wonderful celebration shared with incredible friends who made the trip to join us and make that first Christmas away from home special.
So what made these meals special – it wasn’t that it was the most elaborate preparation or fancy ingredients. It wasn’t the top chef or high end restaurant. It was the people we shared it with, the atmosphere of the evening, the intention and the place the people were coming from – coming together to share something more than just food. Shared experiences with friends over fresh, seasonal ingredients – prepared with passion to create an amazing meal.